Updated: Jun 20
Written in collaboration with Ben Hartman
Managing a farm takes a lot of time and effort. But it doesn’t have always to be that way.
That’s what Ben Hartman, author of The Lean Farm and teacher of the masterclass Lean Market Growing realized a few years ago. He and his wife Rachel Hershberger started Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana. In 2014, one of their CSA customers approached the two owners with the idea of introducing lean methods in their farm operations. The results? Ben and Rachel were able to :
Cut their growing area from 3 acres to ⅓ acre;
Increase their productivity;
Grow 30 produce varieties, focusing on their customers’ preferences;
Sell all the food in a 1.5 miles radius
Get rid of most of their tools;
Decrease their work time to 35h per week (and sometimes even less!).
With its 2 greenhouses and beds in the open, Clay Bottom Farm is one of the rare year-round farms in the area. There’s barely any competition in winter for local products, which allows Clay Bottom Farm to sell most of its produce to restaurants and a food co-op. The remaining produce is sold to a CSA and farmers market customers.
But what is lean farming? What are the fundamental principles of the lean system followed by Ben and Rachel?
In his most recent webinar “The Lean Farm: 4 methods to increase productivity and profits with less work” in collaboration with Orisha, Ben presented all the essential things to know about lean farming so that you too can attain high productivity with less work.
What's the Lean System?
The lean system is a production system from Japan that emphasizes the elimination of waste to increase productivity and profits while requiring less effort. This stands in contrast to the commonly held belief that business growth comes from expansion.
Imagine the lean system as a coin with two sides. The first side represents value. This side represents value-adding work and the customer’s vision of value for them. The other side is the "waste" side, also known as "Muda." There are 10 types of waste, which will see further down.
Every activity in your business falls into one of these categories. The goal of the lean system is to help you eliminate the “waste" side to focus on what you value, whether personal time or value-adding work.
"Lean is all about strategic contraction. As you eliminate waste, you get smaller. We started on 3 acres, and now we farm on less than 1. We got rid of more than half our tools, and we work half the hours that we used to.
Every year that we’ve contracted our business we made more profit. That’s what’s surprising. The mindset I grew up with is that you have to grow through constant expansion." Ben Hartman, interview with Eco Farming Daily
4 steps to increase productivity with less work
Organize with 5S
5S refers to 5 overlooked steps in the process of continuous improvement of the workplace:
Set in order;
The 1st step involves going through EVERYTHING in your workplace and determining the value of each item. Decide what is essential and is used almost every week or what needs to go. BE RUTHLESS. If you need to, have a “red tag” room where you put all the items you’re unsure about.
In the 2nd step, you’ll need to sort through the remaining items to see where they’ll be best used. In this stage, analyze and decide on the most sensible arrangements. Take into consideration your tasks, their frequency, the space, and other relevant factors. It’s best to put your tools at eye level.
The “Shine” stage is dedicated to tidying up your work area: sweeping, mopping, dusting, wiping down surfaces, putting away tools and materials, etc. In addition to these basic cleaning tasks, you should regularly maintain your equipment and machinery.
In the 4th step, you must systematize every previous step so that they turn into habits rather than one-time efforts. You can standardize by creating regular tasks or schedules with instructions so that those actions become a part of your routine. You should simplify every process every season, as your standards are changing.
Finally, the last step involves not only maintaining the smooth running of the 5S but also ensuring that all members of your business remain actively engaged. The ultimate goal of “Sustain” is to establish 5S as a long-term initiative rather than a short-term project. You can use pictures to help with the 3 first steps.
Precisely identify value
You will get this information from customers so that you can be in tune with their needs while still incorporating your values as well.
Ben conducts annual surveys among CSA members to identify their preferences, areas of dissatisfaction and ways to enhance the convenience of pickup. The survey journey continues at the farmers' market booth where they ask for customer feedback. With this, Ben and Rachel can gain a clear understanding of product demands. This approach has enabled them to identify, for example, that market customers prefer orange tomatoes while restaurateurs seek out large red tomatoes.
Some questions you can ask your customers are:
What do you want?
When do you want it?
How much do you need or want?
What is an agreeable price for you?
"The more precisely you can answer those questions and deliver on those, the longer you’ll be in business, the more profitable you’ll be and the easier it will be to retain customers.” Ben Hartman, interview with Eco Farming Daily
Check out Ben’s Template on p.52 of his webinar PowerPoint for a visual example!
Cut out the muda
At Clay Bottom Farm, identifying and eliminating all forms of waste is a perpetual task, guided by the principle of continuous improvement.
"Every year, we want to understand more about value and get rid of more waste. So there’s never a plateau. Lean is an ongoing system, not something you apply in one season". Ben Hartman, interview with Eco Farming Daily
For this step, cut out anything that’s not in the service of adding value to your business or activities. You don’t have to grow your business, you can just cut out waste and work smarter, not harder.
"If you shave 4 hours per week, you can take 1 year off every 10 years. If you can shave 5% cost every year over 10 years, you’ve achieved 50% growth without actually having to expand your business”! Ben Hartman, Webinar “The Lean Farm: 4 methods to increase productivity and profits with less work”
There are 10 types of Waste you can find in your business :
Overproduction: Are all crops being sold?
Waiting: Are there any crops picked but sitting around in a storage area?
Transportation: How efficient are delivery routes and vehicle use? Do you drive too much?
Overprocessing: Are you packaging your products more than needed?
Inventory: Are there more supplies and tools kept on hand than necessary?
Motion: How efficient is your farm layout? Are there too many steps to your growing process?
Defect: Did you have any crop failures? Why? How much unsellable or poor-quality food results from the identified farming methods?
Overburden: Are you, your staff or your equipment overburdened?
Uneven work: To what degree is the work standardized and foreseeable?
Unused talent: Are any valuable ideas or commentary left unexpressed?
Practice kaizen routinely
The term kaizen refers to the Japanese philosophy that every aspect of a business should be continuously improved year after year. Here are 6 elements you should keep in mind for your constant improvement:
Relations with your customers;
Suggestions for improvements.
Everyone involved in your business, whether it’s workers, customers or even your kids, should have a chance to contribute to kaizen!
Implementing the lean system in their operations truly revolutionized the way Ben and Rachel manage their farm. Simply by asking themselves “Where are we overburdened the most?” and establishing a few ways to make changes, the couple cuts the workload every year.
One winter, they were tired of stressing over their plants overheating whenever they weren’t on the property. That’s when they decided to automate their greenhouse. Now? They can go on vacation without any worry, knowing their crops are in the good hands of their interns and the Orisha automation system.
Their business is a true example that farming can be a viable career for any market gardener willing to grow smaller and wiser.
"It’s time for the industry to mature. Those who want to stay in it for the long haul can’t rely on continuous expansion anymore. It’s time to focus our efforts on delivering value for long-term success." Ben Hartman, interview with Eco Farming Daily
Like Ben and Rachel, you as well want to be worry-free when it comes to your greenhouse climate, humidity and irrigation management? Start now and contact us!